During her childhood in a housing project in southeast London, the artist Shantell Martin, who is known for her stream of consciousness drawings done with a black marker, wasn’t around the type of progressive culture and creative lifestyle that she is now. “We had a lot of fun growing up. There was a lot of freedom because there wasn’t a lot of tight regulation or rules brought on us, but there also wasn’t a lot of access to things beyond that. You weren’t exposed to art or artists, or people who actually had jobs beyond a certain profession,” she said of those years, speaking with Whitewall in January.
After attending Central Saint Martins to study design, she had an epiphany. “I remember for the first week of going to art school, I just thought that everyone was going to get beaten up for being really different. But it just didn’t happen,” said Martin. “For the first time, people have pink hair, people have holes in their clothes, people are openly gay—and it’s fine.”
After school, Martin moved to Japan for five years, where she started her career creating visuals for DJs, clubs, museums, and dancers before moving to New York in 2009. We spoke with her to learn more about her introspective practice and varying projects.
WHITEWALL: Last December, during Art Basel in Miami Beach, you teamed up with Kendrick Lamar to create an immersive installation in a 360-degree dome behind the Faena Hotel Miami Beach. What was that like?
SHANTELL MARTIN: It was one of those really simple projects where two artists from different professions are coming together, both equally obsessed with what they do, and meet in the middle and create something really new. It was a really fun, easy, and exciting project. We had time to just catch up with each other and see where each other was coming from, and then, in a way, just interview each other, which was really nice. It was very natural, and actually quite funny because they set out this situation where they wanted us to come and interview each other, and then we both got completely distracted. Kendrick started playing beats and then I started drawing to his beats. Twenty minutes later, we looked up, like, “Oh. So, what should we do now?” It was super-organic and flowed just as it should.
WW: How did your message “ARE YOU YOU?” begin?
SM: When I look back at drawings from 10 to 15 years ago, I see some of the same messaging and questioning. The work is about self-exploration. The work is also about planting seeds and allowing people to see these questions and ask them for themselves. So I see these questions or these phrases as anchors within the work that kind of pull people in.
On the surface, people look at my work and say, “It’s very playful and very whimsical.” On another level, they start to really digest these questions. A lot of the questions are trying to explore and find out what a lot of this vocabulary is that explains us as people at the core. We can describe who we are, where we’re from, and the roles that we play, but none of those words describe who we are at the core, and I think we lack this vocabulary, and we lack the emotion to describe this. By planting these words or these phrases within the work, it’s encouraging us to think about—and maybe even dream up—what this kind of vocabulary and emotion is to describe that.
WW: Tell us about your solo show “Someday We Can” that recently opened at Albright Knox.
SM: In this solo show, you will find over 200 objects—from toys to bottles that I have collected over the last 15 years and turned into art alongside a large 18-by-41-foot wall drawing. Throughout the drawing are panels, and new ones will be added over time (each time I’m scheduled to be back at the museum) to keep the work relevant and ever changing.
WW: You also recently collaborated with Max Mara for a collection called “Prism in Motion.”
SM: This was a really fun project that mixed mediums and industries. I used a 3-D printed tool that I designed (during my time at AutoDesk) to create the initial drawing for the project, which then was broken down to make a very special collection of 1,000 sunglasses—each being unique, and together, the sunglasses make up a bigger picture.
This interview was published in the spring issue of Whitewall, out now.